#33 Magnus Grimeland: The Visionary

published on 22 June 2021

I want to look back at my life and think that the world is a slightly better place because I was around.

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Magnus met us with a friendly smile as if we had known each other for years. He immediately made us feel comfortable and transformed the conversation into a place where imagination and storytelling had no end. He created a perfect symbiosis between the two and painted a bright picture of a better world. It became clear that impact was his bread and butter. His electric energy was contagious, and at times we had to hold our horses as our question list kept on getting longer. An hour passed by in a split of a second. Delightful!

Magnus is, by all means, a visionary. Growing up in Norway, he always had a clear goal in mind: be in proximity to the smartest people in the world. After graduating from the United World College, a boarding school filled with global change makers, Magnus joined the Norwegian Special Forces. After two years, Harvard University was next, where he blustered and became a force for positive change. After a couple of years at McKinsey, Magnus co-founded Zalora, one of Asia’s leading online fashion groups. He is currently the founder and CEO of Antler, a global early-stage VC investing and enabling thousands of entrepreneurs worldwide to realize their dreams and consequently change the world. What an inspiring journey! 

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This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

What did you dream of when you were a kid?

I loved being adventurous and exploring the forests with my friends. Norway is a small country, and over our history, we had many great explorers. I was inspired by the story of Fridtjof Nansen (explorer/scientist and Nobel Peace prize), Roald Amundsen (polar explorer) and Thor Heyerdahl (adventurer and ethnographer known for sailing across the pacific on its hand-built raft referred to as the Kon-Tiki expedition).

A pivotal moment for me was when my great-grandmother passed away. I was 11 and began questioning the purpose of my existence. I tried to seek answers from my parents. Being more on the socialist side, my dad advised me to read “The Trial” by Franz Kafka and other great books, while my mum, being more spiritual, gave me a completely different answer. Thinking about my life’s purpose became an obsession of mine.

I concluded very early that what matters for me is being on a continuous quest towards seeking meaning. In the end, what drives me is having a positive impact on the world. 

I want to look back at my life and think that the world is a slightly better place because I was here.

How was your journey getting into Harvard?

One of my favorite quotes is: 'luck is when the right opportunity meets great preparation'. 

Everything started during a cold evening in Norway. I was lighting up the fireplace and, in the newspaper I used to light the fire, I stumbled across an article about this school in Wales called Atlantic College that the Norwegian Queen Sonja was visiting. Even better, I had just finished a book about one of my big heroes, Nelson Mandela, and he was featured in the article as a patron of the school. Atlantic College is part of the United World College (UWC) and filled with inspiring people from across the world. That night I just decided I was going to do everything in my power to make it happen. 

I rushed to school the following day and told my teachers about my dream. But, they said that to get into UWC I had to wait until I was 16 (I was 12), get good grades, and achieve something meaningful. Filled with excitement, I did what they said, and a couple of years later, I was ready to embark on this new adventure. It was the start of my journey! 

I lived in a typical boarding school environment surrounded by people who cared deeply about making the world a better place. After two incredible years, I aspired to serve my country as my family has done for generations and joined the Norwegian Navy, where I was selected into the Norwegian Naval Special Forces (Marinejegerkommandoen). Serving in the military definitely builds a certain type of mental and physical rigor, and a sense of purpose and humility, that serves one well later in life. 

While I was in the military, many of my friends from school had decided to study at Harvard University, and with the stories they told it felt like the perfect next place to continue my journey. 

This experience taught me that you need to make lofty goals that help you stretch your full potential. I would have never imagined myself doing all these things during that cold evening by the fireplace. Still, anything you do creates new opportunities, and it’s up to you to be prepared to grab them. Set some goals and start doing things to get there. My story is a prime example of when opportunity met the proper preparation. I do consider myself lucky! 

What is your biggest take on studying at Harvard? 

By far the people. Harvard is a fascinating collection of incredible characters many of who are inspired to positively impact the world. Every morning and evening entering the dining hall, I felt I was part of something special. The atmosphere was electric and almost magical in a way. Many of the people I’ve met at Harvard still play an essential role in my life. 

Magnus (<i>right</i>), together with his friends from The Harvard Crimson. 
Magnus (right), together with his friends from The Harvard Crimson. 

Make sure to take care and nurture the relationship with the people you meet during your journey. 

You had the chance to join Facebook in its early days. What happened?

Yes, it is a true story (laughs) as TheFacebook was hiring interns. What Mark did was incredible, and you could see it taking off extremely rapidly on campus. A lot of the people who joined in these early days were rewarded in equity and stock options. It’s a great example of how joining an incredible leader early can reap huge rewards. The people joining Facebook were well-rewarded for taking the risk and believing in a project that had been created in a dorm room.

If you place yourself in an environment close to the most brilliant and creative people, opportunities like these will arise regularly. Eventually, you won’t feel so bad if you miss one or two since they will come again. The lesson here is to constantly look for these visionaries and follow them on their journey towards changing the world. But make sure you believe in their vision. If you do, you have to take the leap of faith and make it happen.

It is noble to be the first follower. It is an act of true leadership. 

Then at some point you can also do it yourself...

Describe the moment when you realized that you wanted to build your own company?

I’ve always enjoyed building. But by the time I graduated, I had student loans and needed to create a stable income stream. I didn’t think about it twice when McKinsey knocked on the door. There, I worked all over the world closely with some of the most renowned technology companies. It was the perfect training ground. 

I believe that there is a time to learn in life, and there is a time to apply what you learned. Ultimately, the goal should be to get closer and closer to what you are genuinely passionate about. Also, most of our passions change over time. I doubt I would have made an impact working entirely on my passions when I was 21. 

At some point, I realized that I had learned what I needed to, and it was now time to put it all into action. That ended up being part of the founding story of Zalora, one of the fastest-growing fashion e-commerce players in Asia. 

Why leave Zalora and start again from scratch? 

I was searching for something that was fully aligned with my passions. I didn’t wake up every morning thinking about fashion. In the back of my head, the idea of enabling more exceptional people to innovate kept me awake at night. During my time at McKinsey, I noticed hundreds of engineers not fully reaching their potential stuck at large tech companies, and tons of startups were created by our previous Zalora colleagues (Gojek, Shopee, StashAway & Shopback).

Magnus during his time building Zalora.
Magnus during his time building Zalora.

This combination made me realize that identifying exceptional people and providing a bit of support in the early days of their journey can have a real impact. I wanted to create a platform that focused on identifying these change-makers and increasing their chances of success by providing them access to a global network and capital. This was the project where I felt that I was finally fully aligned with my passion; Antler

What is your take on being persistent? Any stories where you had to show grit to get something in particular?

When you are starting up something new, you’d better get used to being rejected. It is a natural part of the life of a founder. 

I always tell our founders that they have to pull out their hustling gene when things get complicated. 

Some founders are born hustlers and won’t take no for an answer and have no shame persisting. For me, it was different. Growing up in the countryside in Norway, we were constantly reminded about the “Law of Jante”, according to which individual ambition and non-conformism are inappropriate. Therefore, it is harder for me to pull out the hustling gene.

As an entrepreneur, you have to think about rejection differently. A “no'' today doesn’t mean a “no” tomorrow. If people are not answering, keep pushing until they do. I’ve gone to the extremes when people were not responding, reaching out via Twitter, Youtube, Medium, and even guessing their email addresses. Crazy stuff, but very much needed! 

You have to think that this person will benefit tremendously from what you have to offer. If you don’t think that, you shouldn't reach out in the first place. Imagine that you are doing them a favor by being persistent. 

An example from my life was during the fundraising process for Antler. I reached out to the co-founder of Facebook, Eduardo Saverin who’s been incredible at supporting several great entrepreneurs to achieve what he did through B Capital and personally. People like him are incredibly busy, so you need to be persistent. He ended up investing in our latest fund. That would have never happened if I wasn't persistent and believed in our mission. 

The key is having a mindset where failure is not an option.

When was the time you felt the most vulnerable?

I felt very vulnerable during my first months studying abroad at Atlantic College. It was clear to me that a lot of my fellow students from the rest of Europe, Asia, Africa, the Americas, and Australia had proceeded quite a bit further academically than I had, coming out of Norway. It was also my first time studying in English, and I initially had a large gap to close to get to the same level. During my time in the military, there obviously also many moments where you are extremely vulnerable. 

And even when building Antler, starting again from scratch with an idea, you always feel vulnerable. The lesson here is that vulnerable moments are essential as they signal that you are trying to achieve something incredibly hard. If you feel doubtful and vulnerable, it means you are on the right track towards something special.

What would you do if you only had 30 days to live?

I’d spent as much time as possible with my family and friends. I would spend time with Antler as I believe we’re on a very meaningful mission. Lastly, I would like to share some of the main takeaways of my life. 

Magnus with the family Rachel, Leo, and Isla
Magnus with the family Rachel, Leo, and Isla

Any takeaways you want to share now?

Absolutely. I believe creating equal opportunities for everyone will drastically change the world. After Harvard, I traveled to Northern Zambia to set up a development project. 

Magnus teaching first aid in Zambia, 2007
Magnus teaching first aid in Zambia, 2007

The living conditions in the slum that we worked in were terrible. The majority did not have access to clean water and electricity, people were dying of basic diseases. A few very well-educated locals can make a huge difference in such a community, creating equal opportunities for everyone is an even larger challenge. A few people from here went on to join UWC. It blew my mind to imagine the adversity they had to overcome to achieve a solid education. 

I experienced similar things while working in Asia a few years later.

Magnus appearing at CNBC to speak about Antler’s impact in Asia.
Magnus appearing at CNBC to speak about Antler’s impact in Asia.

Throughout my life, I’ve kept on stumbling across an incredible number of similar stories of people who “moved mountains' to get where they wanted. It is not only morally right to enable these people an equal playing ground, but it is also an incredible loss to the world, not giving incredible people the chance to use their talents to change the world. World history has taught us that it only takes one person to change the world fundamentally. It is our collective responsibility to make it happen!

Do you have an inspiring figure?

I named two of our turtles after two of my biggest heroes. Mandela, for Nelson Mandela, and Nansen, for Fridtjof Nansen. Lastly, my grandmother, Doreen Grimeland, always inspired me. She grew up in South America in the 1920s and recently wrote a book about her life stories. Sadly, she passed away last year, but she keeps on profoundly influencing my life. 

One book? 

I would advise everyone to read everything about the great thinkers of human history. Most of what we know today is built on top of existing knowledge, and it is critical to understand our origins. I start with a classic about the great philosophers in Ancient Greece (Plato, Socrates, Aristotle).

Podcast?

How I Built This with Guy Raz

Our Main Takeaways

  • If you place yourself in an environment close to the most brilliant and creative people, opportunities will arise regularly.
  • Taking care and nurturing the relationship with the people you meet during your journey is essential. 
  • Successful founders keep on being persistent even in the hardest times. 

Inspiring story Magnus, thank you very much.

Magnus doing what he does best: captivating audiences with great life stories.
Magnus doing what he does best: captivating audiences with great life stories.

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